Hiccups May Play A Crucial Role In Brain Development, New Study Finds

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Hiccups: We all have them, and we all (most likely) find them irritating. While most people associate these uncomfortable reflexes with digestive issues or acid reflux, there may be another reason hiccups exist—and a good one at that. 

A new study in the journal Clinical Neurophysiology took brain scans of newborn infants and found hiccups might have a perfectly functional reason: They could be crucial for the development of newborn brains.

"The reasons for why we hiccup are not entirely clear, but there may be a developmental reason, given that foetuses and newborn babies hiccup so frequently," researcher on the study Kimberley Whitehead says.  

Whitehead's theory doesn't go unwarranted: Hiccups begin in the womb as early as nine weeks (one of the earliest patterns of womb activity), and preterm babies spend 1% of their time hiccuping (around 15 minutes a day). Given these details, it makes sense that hiccups would be significant for brain development

How did they test this theory? 

During the study, researchers took brain scans from 13 newborn infants (both preterm and full-term) and measured the contractions of their diaphragms from hiccuping. What they found was whenever a baby would start to hiccup (and their diaphragm would contract), two large brain waves would respond; when the baby would emit the familiar hiccup noise, a third brain wave followed. These scientists believe that a baby's brain links the hiccup sound with the feeling of their diaphragm contractions and that this process is important in making brain connections

Lead author of the study Lorenzo Fabrizi, Ph.D., explains further: "The activity resulting from a hiccup may be helping the baby's brain to learn how to monitor the breathing muscles so that eventually breathing can be voluntarily controlled by moving the diaphragm up and down. When we are born, the circuits which process body sensations are not fully developed, so the establishment of such networks is a crucial developmental milestone for newborns." 

To make a long description short, baby hiccups lead to brain signals that can help babies regulate their own breathing. Maybe that's why we feel out of breath after a round of incessant hiccups? 

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So, why do we still hiccup?

The question becomes: If hiccuping is so important for brain development when we're infants, why do we still experience a bout of hiccups when we're adults? 

This is when research becomes a little unclear, but Whitehead suggests our hiccups may just be left over muscle memory from when we were little. "Our findings have prompted us to wonder whether hiccups in adults, which appear to be mainly a nuisance, may in fact be a vestigial reflex, left over from infancy when it had an important function," she says. 

Future research could determine whether there is a reason adults still face hiccups, or if it's just a reflex we learned when we were babies and never got rid of.

So the next time you have a random bout of hiccups with no spicy food or carbonated beverages in sight, remember it may just be a habit from when you were little that your body could never quite kick.

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